History of West Union Township
Terry Smith, Town Historian
The town of West Union occupies the southwest corner of Steuben County, and is bordered on the south by Pennsysvania and on the west by Independence Township in Allegany County. Rexville, a small hamlet near the center of the town, is its only village. The land is mostly hilly, with its highest elevation about 2400 feet. Hardwood forests abound. Bennett's Creek begins and runs north though Rexville and the center of the township. Troups Creek and Kryder Creek also have their origins in the town.
In 1821, when the first pioneers began to settle what would later become West Union, the land was part of Troupsburg. Abraham V. Olmstead came from Delaware County and made a clearing at the site of present day Rexville. He later erected the first tavern in the town. His son, Walter B., is the first recorded birth among the new settlers. Also around 1821, Jonathan and John Mattison and David Davis located in the eastern part of the present town. Other early settlers were William Burger, also from Delaware County, and Frederick Hauber from Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, who cut his own road into the area. Henry Young settled at West Union Corners and John Wiley settled where the hamlet of Wileysville was later built up. Vincent Compton, Adam Young, William Fisher, Benjamin Wilkes, Ephraim Young, Daniel Hamilton, David Baker, Benjamin Wilkes and a man known as Old Mr. Bray are other early names.
Uriah Stevens taught the first school in about 1830. Over the years, ten district schools were supported in various locations around the township before centralization in the 1930's, when half of the township went to Greenwood and half to Whitesville.
About 1840, a number of hardworking Irish immigrants began to form a strong settlement in the north part of town when the work in the Erie Railroad which drew them to the area was completed. Among the first were John Sheehan, Dennis Malone, and Luke Fox.
The Town of West Union was formed on April 25, 1845, when 2300 acres was separated from Greenwood Township, of which it was then a part. The residents felt that Greenwood was too far distant for their needs and circulated a petition to form their own town, which was nearly half of the Town of Greenwood. The petition called for the town to be called Green, but that was rejected because there was already a town of that name in the state. They then requested Union, which was rejected for the same reason. They added West, and the bill passed.
The election for the first officers in this town was held at the house of John Hauber, on the present site of Rexville village, May 6, 1845. The first ballot box was a sugar bucket with a slot cut in the cover. David Sherman was elected supervisor, and Moses Forbes town clerk.
The population of West Union at that point was 539. Five years later the number had grown to 950. Population reached its peak in 1860 with 1392, in 1892 was 1,150, and in 2000 was 399.
The hamlet of Rexville got its name from the Rexford brothers, Charles and Daniel, who came into the valley of Bennett's Creek in 1849 and built a saw mill on the site of the village named for them. They also erected the first frame building in the town and opened a tavern which was called the " Eagle."(see photo) These enterprising brothers were also instrumental in bringing about many improvements in the settlement and were in all respects useful and progressive citizens. However, in 1859, they sold the tavern to James McCormick and soon afterward left the village. The tavern was afterward known as High Jimmy's.
As mentioned, three early settlements began to prosper in West Union. They were West Union Corners, Wileysville, and Rexville. Only Rexville remains. Wileyville, now spelled without the “s”, was a site of early industry with its own post office. John Wiley built the first saw and grist mills in township there in 1849 and 1850. Wileyville is now a four corners in the western part of town. West Union, high up in the northwest corner of the township, also had its own post office in the Barney home for several generations, but by the late 1800's, that was all it had.
Rexville was, at its peak, a thriving little village, though it never exceeded 200 residents. Located in a valley near the center of the township, it had three hotels or taverns, two churches, three general stores, an undertaker, a doctor/druggist, a farm implement dealer, a combination gristmill/ sawmill/planing mill, a furniture factory, two wagon makers, multiple cheese factories, an icehouse, a schoolhouse, two blacksmith shops, a post office, a pension claim agent, and a railroad depot.
David Sherman may safely be considered the pioneer dairyman in West Union,” Harlo Hakes reports in 1895. He opened the first commercial cheese factory in West Union in 1841. 1865 butter production for the town was 98,000 pounds. It is told that after David Sherman became well established, he sold land without a down payment to new settlers who did not have the money, and helped with stock, hay, etc. until they could pay him back. Sherman's cheese factory burned in 1881, and all township records were destroyed, probably stored there because of his role as Town Supervisor earlier.
Earliest settlers were too occupied in clearing land and had too little tillable land to farm. They sold timber and ashes from burning stumps. Early records tell of wagons of timber begin taken to Dansville before the railroad came to West Union. Maple products provided a significant source of revenue.
Hakes also reports on West Union's involvement in the Civil War. “During the period of the War of the Rebellion, the loyalty of the people displayed itself, and we find that the town sent to the service a total of sixty men. They were divided among several regiments, principally the 86th, the 107th and the 141st.”
The same historian tells another interesting story. “At the outlet of the (Marsh) swamp on the Kyder Creek (near Whitesville) stood the “Pine Sapling”, a single pine tree of gigantic proportions, standing by itself in the open valley below the swamp and since the early settlement, a prominent landmark. The tree which was cut down in 1877 measured 9 feet across the stump. It grew in a straight stem for 20 feet, where it divided into seven different trunks, rising to a height of 190 feet from the ground. Seven thousand feet of lumber and 40,000 shingles were made from its trunk.” The legend says that a square dance was held on the stump. Gene Edwards, a senior citizen who grew up near West Union Corners, reports that lumber from the Pine Sapling was used to construct his boyhood home and at least one other house.
Also near the same Marsh Swamp is an oil field, the Marsh Pool, which was very productive during the 1880’s and again in the 1930’s. It then lay dormant for many years, and now, using modern extraction techniques, is again productive to a lesser extent.
There were three churches in the township that we know of, and two of them still exist. Two congregations of the Methodist Episcopal Church were formed four miles apart. One was formed early at Rexville in 1831. The meetings were held in the house of Abraham V. Olmstead. Not until 1870 did they built the church on the edge of Rexville (see photo) that no longer exists. In later years, with such a large Irish Catholic population, workers in the Marsh oilfields who were active in that church in its heyday kept it going. When the oil was gone and they moved away, the church was too small to survive. It was torn down in the 1940's.
In 1883, a second Methodist Episcopal church was built at the present day intersection of County Route 84 and Saunders Road on land donated by a prosperous farmer, Philip Saunders. This generous man also gained renown for having given each of his six sons and four daughters a farm as a wedding gift. This church eventually became vacant, and was bought and restored in the 1960's by a Mennonite group, who have an active congregation there today.
The Roman Catholic Church in the area has an interesting history. In 1832, priests came by horseback from Rochester to celebrate mass in the home Patrick McCormick. The church was established in 1845 and a new church built on the border in neighboring Greenwood on Town Line Road. Later, a second, small church was built in Troupsburg on Leonard Road just east across their border. Perhaps due to the influx of so many Irish immigrants, in 1869, Father McMullen transferred the parochial jurisdiction from Greenwood to West Union. On September 8, 1875, the new St. Mary's Church was finished and dedicated on its present site in Rexville, better suited to the needs of Catholics in the towns of Greenwood, West Union and Troupsburg. This splendid church, which measured some 200 feet long (see photo) and served over 200 families, burned in February, 1877. Within a year a new, though smaller, church was dedicated on September 14, 1877. That building served well for over 100 years until it was struck by lightning and burned in June of 1981. In 1889, a parish hall and school was build across the road from the church. It had 97 students. That building, no longer a school, burned in 1943. Today, a newer, modern church serves the smaller but active congregation at the same location.
The introduction of the New York & Pennsylvania Railroad in 1896, the NYP as it was known, had a dramatic impact on the township, and its removal in 1936 after the 1935 flood destroyed much of its track had equally dramatic impact. By 1901, the “road”, operated 57 miles of line from Canisteo to Ceres, NY by way of Shinglehouse, PA. Its advent fostered jobs and business and provided a way to market products and bring supplies for farm and factory. Its absence resulted in mass exodus from all communities along its tracks, sometimes as much as 50% in one year. Interestingly, an earlier flood in 1916 also destroyed track between Greenwood and Canisteo, but the railroad had rebuilt because the line was profitable. In 1935, so much less freight was being hauled that only a few cars were needed most of the time, and the company could not justify the repairs.
Another railroad was planned before the NYP was built that would have run from Hornell to Pine Valley, PA, and would have passed near the location of the present day Mennonite church. Fourteen miles of roadbed was graded for the Rochester, Hornell , and Pine Creek Railroad, between Canisteo and Rexville, but the plan was abandoned. The NYP was able to use that roadbed to some degree later on.